Church of Scotland responds to Social Attitudes Survey

Colin Sinclair
Rev Colin Sinclair, Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council.

A senior Kirk official has warned against measuring the strength of the Church by reports of a decline in membership numbers.

The Church of Scotland continues to play a crucial role in communities across Scotland and in the public life of the nation, said Rev Colin Sinclair Convener of the Mission and Discipleship Council.

Mr Sinclair spoke out in response to a recent Scottish Social Attitudes Survey that claimed to show 52 percent of Scots are now atheists. The study based its conclusions on the responses of 1,288 people out of a population of 5,347,600.

Mr Sinclair said while there are lessons in the report, the big picture offers a more optimistic story:

"When I was young "mission" seemed to begin at the far end of the Mediterranean. What this survey highlights is that mission is now at our doorstep. We welcome the opportunity and challenge of sharing our Christian faith in ways that are relevant to people living in Scotland today.

"We do not minimise the challenges we face, yet what the statistics actually show is that one in five people in Scotland do feel connected to the Kirk.

"Being aware of the secularisation of our society we are developing fresh expressions of church alongside traditional forms in order to engage with people. These are often more informal and relational and they are set in contexts in which people feel on their home ground and therefore in a safe place.

"We have set up some pioneer ministries that will work in our communities to help us learn lessons that will shape the whole church. We have published a resource "Exploring Faith" to explain what our faith is and why it matters.

"We have contacted those who have stopped attending church but want to hang on to their Christian Faith. We want to hear their stories and understand the lessons we can learn from them.

"How encouraging that faced with this survey we can report the highest number for nine years of new ministers coming into our church.

"It is only when it becomes "unfashionable" to have faith that we find out for ourselves the true value and meaning of a gospel centred on Jesus Christ that transforms lives and communities. "

Mr Sinclair noted that the Church of Scotland is a vibrant, inclusive national organization made up of more than 380,000 members. It remains the largest third-sector provider of social care in Scotland, helping many of our nation's most vulnerable people. Church buildings provide a home to countless community groups and service organizations. Church members raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity each year.

Yet other research suggests that Christianity is in transition rather than decline. Dr Steve Aisthorpe's new book The Invisible Church details his research findings that many people of faith are among a second or even a third generation of families who have never attended Church. At the same time the research found that two-thirds of those who stop attending church services still retain their belief in God and desire to live as Christians.

The work of the Church was recognised in the Scottish Parliament earlier this year. Anne McTaggart, a Labour MSP, said it would be "devastating" for people and their families if the services provided by CrossReach, which can trace its roots back to 1869, disappeared overnight.

Highland SNP MSP Dave Thompson said the organisation does a "huge" amount of good work and the care function in Scotland would be plunged into "a major crisis" if it stopped operating.

Former SNP Justice minister Kenny Macaskill, who says he is non-religious, wrote in praise of churches in his Sunday Herald column of 17 Feb. Writing that people of all ages and denominations come together in churches, he concludes that losing them would mean, "the entire community, not just the congregation, will be the loser."